Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nice Organizing Win in Maine!

The following guest post is by Brian Hiatt, a graduate of Antioch University's Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program (EAOP) and an organizer with the League of Young Voters in Portland, Maine. This post was originally posted on the DMI Blog.

More than six bucks for a gallon of gas. That's what we'd be paying if the price at the pump increased at the same mind-boggling rate as going to college has over the last three decades. But if you are - or aspire to be - a student in Maine, the League of Young Voters and Opportunity Maine have your back.

That is, we just pushed through a groundbreaking initiative that revolutionizes how states can deal with the vexing problem of student debt. And low college enrollment.. and "brain drain"...and job loss...and a lagging state economy.

Our solution is simple: give any person who graduates from a Maine college or university - and then stays to work and live in state - a tax credit to help pay back their student loans.

And the result is a quadruple play for Maine - or other states that want to model the Legislation.

* It makes college affordable
* Encourages people of all ages to enroll
* Graduates are encouraged to stick around
* The now educated workforce attracts new employers

Oh, and it more than pays for itself: the new employers and higher paying jobs will benefit Maine's tax base by $14 million in 2018.

Maybe it's a quintuple play?

That's why the Maine Legislature acted decisively and did two things they don't normally do.

First, the Maine House unanimously - UNANIMOUSLY - approved the initiative 142-0. And when the Senate followed suit, passing the Bill 27-8, it was only the sixth time in the history of Maine's citizens' initiative process that the Legislature themselves approved policy instead of sending it to the voters - which was the campaigns initial goal.

With record high costs for pursuing a higher education, Opportunity Maine stands to be one of the most promising solutions to student debt this generation has ever seen. The Maine Legislature's lone World War II veteran, Rep. Walter Wheeler, who used a previous generation's solution - the GI Bill, agrees.

Stay tuned to the League of Young Voters over the next few weeks and we'll tell you more about what made this initiative successful and how we're going to roll it out beyond Maine.

* * * * * * *
Brian Hiatt organizes with the League of Young Voters in Portland, Maine. The Portland League has helped elect two twenty-something City Councilors in Portland, has passed innovative statewide energy efficiency legislation for renters, and formed a partnership with Opportunity Maine to get more Mainers in college and keep them in-state once graduated. Before making politics accessible to young people with the League, Brian helped the band Phish launch a national voter registration drive in 2003 and continued targeting concert-goers with HeadCount, in 2004. He holds a bachelors from Northern Arizona University and a masters degree in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing from Antioch University New England.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Great New Book on Organzing!

A few weeks ago, I was listening to NPR on my drive home from work. All of a sudden, the announcer mentioned that Hilary Clinton wrote a paper on Saul Alinsky while she was in college and Barack Obama had actually worked as a community organizer in Alinsky's old stomping grounds in Chicago. The announcer then conducted a 15 minute interview with Alinsky's biographer. OK, when was the last time you heard about community organizing as a profession on any of the mass media? This was a pleasant breakthrough.

Speaking of breakthroughs, there is a great new book on the organizing profession that has just been released. I've been reading it this weekend and am certain that I'll be using it in my fall course on "organizing social movements and campaigns." The book is called We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do – and Why. It is written by veteran community organizer Joe Szakos and writer/editor Kristin Layng Szakos and the book helps to demystify the little-known profession of community organizing and offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who make changing the world their life’s work. It does this with fourteen in-depth profiles of different organizers as well as drawing on the stories and wisdom of the 81 organizers from across the United States whose voices are represented in chapters like “What is Community Organizing?,” “How I Started Organizing,” “Why Organize?”, “Achievements and Victories,” “Disappointments Are Inevitable,” and “Advice to Aspiring Organizers.” This book is so much more helpful than Saul Alinsky's fifteen minutes of fame on NPR--as lovely as that was.

Here is what other people are saying about We Make Change:

“Looking for a rewarding, meaningful career? In We Make Change, community organizers tell their own stories about one of the most adventurous careers available – grassroots organizing for social change. The pay is lousy, the hours are long, but, as these deeply engaging stories show, you won’t find better company anywhere.”

- Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

“The most wonderful thing about We Make Change is that it's so much fun to read. It's like a personal tour of America where you get to meet the most engaging, optimistic kind of citizens -- people who love this country's possibilities and are working to fulfill them. It is also a deeply informative portrait of community organizing -- how it works, why it is so important for our future."

- William Greider, author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy

"We Make Change is an inspiring, optimistic book about the people who are doing the hard, creative work to renew American democracy. It puts a spotlight on community organizers, who are the neglected and hidden heroes that are developing the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. In these difficult and dark times, this book provides hope for the future of America. It should inspire thousands of people to find their calling in organizing.”

- Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change

Happy reading!

My "Creative Maladjustment" Talk

As noted in my last post, I was recently a keynote speaker, along with Sarah Conn and Allen Kanner, at the Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference held June 9-11 at Lewis and Clark College. I was the only non-psychologist among the keynoters, but my talk "Creative Maladjustment: Activism as a Way to Heal Self, Society, and Planet" was remarkably well-received and included a standing ovation by the 175 conference participants. I was very touched too when Allen Kanner, the founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, wrote to say, "I loved what you had to say in your talk, and how you said it."

For anyone who would like a write up of my talk, please write me and I'll send you a PDF version. Also, please free feel to pass it on to any friends, colleagues, or contacts you think might be interested.

Here's a section from the talk to whet your appetite for more:

I do hear many activists complain that even well-meaning, pro-activist psychologists often fall into a very unhelpful psychological trap. This needs to be addressed before we can move forward together. Let me give you one very specific example of this unhelpful perspective. I found this example in the Psychologists for Social Responsibility book on Working for Peace I just mentioned. In it, there is a very interesting, but confusing piece by Dr. Christina Michaelson, a clinical psychologist who practices and teaches in Syracuse, New York.

Michaelson’s research interests include Eastern psychology, meditation, and inner peace and her essay in the book is called “Cultivating Inner Peace.” There is so much that is useful in this essay, so let’s start with that. First, there is absolutely no question that Michaelson is maladjusted to the world of violence and imperial war. In her essay, she also lauds all peace activists who “invest tremendous amounts of time, talent, energy, and resources into changing the world.” She also wisely claims that this work can be made even more effective, and more soul-satisfying, if peace activists cultivate their own inner peace through such methods as meditation, nature experiences, counseling, and prayer. I am completely with her on all of this.

Yet, in just her second paragraph, Michaelson says something I think we need to question. According to Michaelson:
If you’re to bring peace to others, then you must first manifest peace in your own life. Your peace work in the world should begin with cultivating an inner state of peacefulness and then you truly can offer peace to others. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want to see peace in the world, then you must “be” peace in the world.
Now this all sounds pretty good on the surface, but I sense in her repetitive first/then formulation that she is actually counseling would-be peace activists to delay their outward social activism until they have cultivated a deep inner peace. She explicitly says it twice and implies it a third time in just this one brief passage. Her advice to her readers seems to be: first cultivate inner psychological peace and then, and only then, think about investing your “time, talent, energy, and resources into changing the world.”

If this is true, then Michaelson’s linear “personal growth first and then activism” idea is not only a serious misreading of Gandhi’s strategy for ending British imperialism, but is also an unconscious call to social passivity and foregoing outward activism until some unspecified future. This is just not helpful. As Paul Rogat Loeb notes in his book Soul of a Citizen, many people already hold back from becoming engaged activists because they believe that they have to be saints before they begin. As he says:
Many of us have developed what I call the perfect standard: Before we will allow ourselves to take action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue is the world’s most important, but that we have perfect understanding of it, perfect moral consistency in our character, and that we will be able to express our views with perfect eloquence… Whatever the issue, whatever the approach, we never feel we have enough knowledge or standing. If we do speak out, someone might challenge us, might find an error in our thinking or an inconsistency—what they might call a hypocrisy—in our lives.
As a result of believing in Michaelson’s version of “the perfect standard,” many people I know either turn away from activism altogether or work endlessly in personal growth workshops to prepare themselves for a day that rarely comes--when they finally feel that they have met the perfect standard and can actually become activists out in the world. This is disheartening to me because I haven’t seen much evidence that this approach does all that much to help people move towards greater empowerment and wholeness in their lives. I also can’t think of a time in history when it has ever led to social movement success. Time and time again, effective social movements have been made by people who don’t wait on perfection, but who just get active by hook or crook.

[To give folks an example, I told the story I've told on this blog before of Martin Luther King's messy journey to activism in 1955.]

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Help for the "Creatively Maladjusted"

Next weekend, I'm traveling to give a keynote talk at a major national conference on Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. My presentation is entitled "Creative Maladjustment: Activism as a Way to Heal Self, Society, and Planet," I took the title from a phrase used in a talk given by Martin Luther King at the 1967 annual convention of the American Psychological Association. In that speech, King called on psychologists to help foster "creative maladjustment" to racism, economic injustice, religious bigotry, and militarism. I'm building on that and focusing my talk on how psychologists can offer their professional insights and tools to the sustainability movement of today.

One of the examples I'm going to offer the 175 people in attendance is a new activist manual edited by Dr. Rachel MacNair and several members of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. This anthology is called Working for Peace: A Handbook of Practical Psychology and Other Tools. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so.

The goal of the book is to provide a useful handbook of practical psychological tools and insights for anyone “who wants to find better ways to work for peace or otherwise improve the world.” In essence, the authors of this anthology are trying to help people become ever more creatively maladjusted to a militaristic world gone mad.

The introduction of the book offers a great snapshot of the kinds of psychological insights and tools that can help citizen activists in their work. For example, the authors write “if you are feeling overwhelmed” go to these chapters; “if you are wanting to improve your personal effectiveness” go to these chapters; “if you are wanting to help your local group work better” go to these chapters; “if you are having trouble dealing with one or more members of your group” go to these chapters; “if you are having trouble communicating your message to the public” go to these chapters; “if you are looking for ideas on how to make greater impact” go to these chapters; “if you are looking for ideas about conflict resolution and/or nonviolent action” go to these chapters.

The 34 essays in the rest of the book then deliver excellent tools and insights that can help people solve many common problems facing citizen activists working for peace and other important causes. I’m very proud that Susan Hawes, one of my colleagues in the Clinical Psychology Department here at Antioch, has an essay in this book. Her piece is called “Dialogues Across Difference.” I’ve told Susan, but I am going to tell the assembled psychologists in Portland how incredibly grateful I am for this kind of help from the field of psychology.